Career

The Topp twins at 60

We may be 60 but we don't feel it!

By Emma Clifton
There's a sweet pony called Milo, with a sandy, shaggy fringe. A rooster with glossy tail feathers who gets bathed regularly due to a scratchy skin condition.
There are also three grey horses, a handful of chickens and an 11-year-old spaniel called White Feather, whose extreme deafness sparks a frantic search every time someone needs to move their car, lest he be lying in the way. And front and centre of the mayhem are Jools and Lynda Topp, national treasures and animal lovers alike.
The location for today's cover shoot with The Australian Women's Weekly is at Jools' 3.2ha farm, north of Auckland. It's tucked into the middle of nowhere and one of her favourite things about it is that nobody knows where it is.
Lynda jokes "that'll change" once the magazine article is out, that Jools is soon to be inundated with visitors. Jools, without missing a beat, fires back: "I can load a shotgun in five seconds, Lynda."
The Topp Twins are, immediately and wonderfully, exactly as you would imagine them to be. Funny and deadpan, warm and no-nonsense. They are also kindly looking past the fact that our visit to the farm is the one thing standing between them and the start of their summer holiday.
They have just finished their Heading for the Hills tour, which saw them travelling around the small corners of New Zealand, sharing a road worker's hut that was built by Lynda and nicknamed "the Stinky".
This isn't an indictment on hygiene habits, it's actually a tribute to the nickname the road workers gave the huts back in the day. But even after four months of sharing very close quarters, the pair are still firing on all cylinders and are exceptionally generous hosts to The Australian Women's Weekly team that has descended on Jools' property.
They bustle around making pots of tea and plungers of coffee, and Jools whips up some homemade cordial, joking that the pair inherited their mother's catering gene. Funnily enough, it was Jean, 86, who laid the groundwork for their popular show Topp Country, which saw them pick up the award for Best Presenters at the New Zealand Television Awards late last year.
"We asked Mum, 'What would you like to see in the cooking show?'" Lynda says. "And she said, 'I'd like to see a little bit of your singing; it's gotta be fun. At the end of the programme, I'd like to be able to cook what you've made.'" And the clincher? "'Nobody should be voted off.'"
The third season of the series is hitting our screens in February, and it's very popular, because of course it is, it's the Topp Twins. They are both equally proud and amused by the celebrity status their 40-year career has garnered them.
Case in point, their most recent public outing. It's exactly the scenario you might imagine the Topp Twins would be mobbed at. While on tour, they had a day off and went to Mitre 10 (of course), because they needed a screwdriver to fix something on White Feather's dog box and they do all their own DIY (naturally). It was, at most, a 10-minute errand. Yet over an hour later they were still there.
"The staff wanted a picture with us," Lynda recalls. "And then someone else says, 'My mum loves you!' and then it's 'My aunty is over on aisle six!'"
"We've become New Zealand icons now; people stop us in the street," Jools says. "What's interesting is when we're back on TV, it'll start up again. Television is a really funny medium in New Zealand – even the weather girl is famous, you know?"
The twins have been very famous for a very long time; and not only are they household names, but so are their characters Ken and Ken, Camp Leader and Camp Mother. The Topp Twins, in the vein of the wonderful Billy T. James, gave New Zealanders the gift of being able to laugh at ourselves in a way that was as good-natured as it was hilarious.
They made a clear distinction early on about what their brand of humour was going to be, they say.
"We're sending up those characters as opposed to putting them down; that's our fine line of acting," Lynda says.
"In order to put something down, you don't have to know anything about it. But if you're going to send something up, you have to know everything about it."
Our interview is punctuated by many (crisis-free) cups of tea; we are happily ensconced in Jools' lounge on squashy couches covered in colourful throws. Horse paraphernalia lines the walls; a ceiling-high antique drinks cabinet holds several types of whisky, along with a collection of vintage belt buckles.
Having a conversation with the sisters is like getting in the way of a tennis match – topics and jokes fly around you non-stop – and the pair don't so much finish each other's sentences, as share the same wavelength.
They are each other's cheerleaders while also being, you know, siblings. At one point Jools is mid-sentence when she is shushed by Lynda – "You're being loud" – only to respond, "Have you got your earphones turned up too high?"
Lynda surreptitiously adjusts her hearing aid and the flow of the conversation continues undisturbed.
They are a very good team, and they have been all their lives. At one point while reminiscing about their childhood, they share an anecdote that sums up their relationship perfectly. Back when they were at school, there was some ridiculous rule that girls couldn't run more than 200m; only the boys were allowed to do the 400m or 800m races.
You know how this story ends: Jools and Lynda wore down the teachers and spent their high school years racing each other, because no other girls wanted to enter.
"We used to share it," Lynda recalls.
"Sometimes we'd be up the home straight, racing, and I'd say, 'Let me go, Jools,' and she'd say, 'Rightio, off you go!' Or I'd say, 'Way you go, Jools! You can win this one.' We'd still run as hard as we could but we gave the other one permission to bolt it."
"We had a childhood that allowed us to do that," Jools says. "We felt we were invincible and could do anything."
There's a reason one of their most famous songs – not to mention their documentary – was called Untouchable Girls. In the 2009 film, there's plenty of footage of the twins growing up and there's nary an awkward patch or insecure moment between them.
Even in their early 20s, performing on the pavement, they are fully, confidently themselves; as though they had both left the womb armed with killer singing voices and an unshakeable sense of self-assuredness. It all comes back to their parents, they say.
"Our parents instilled in us the idea that you could do anything. It didn't matter if you were a boy or a girl. It wasn't 'you have to do the dishes and your brother has to work on the farm'. In fact" – Lynda pauses to chuckle – "it turned out to be the opposite because our brother's gay and all he wanted to be was a florist when he was young."
Not only did they have a supportive family, they also had each other. And that gave them fortitude during the political upheavals that filtered through their 20s, 30s, and 40s. "We could stand up and have the microphone," Jools says. "We could be the ones that said the staunch things and be really radical, because there were two of us and we backed each other up."
The Topp Twins were extraordinarily influential during one of the most volatile times of New Zealand history. The nuclear-free debate, the Homosexual Law Reform Act, Bastion Point, the Springboks tour – they were not only there on the front lines, but they had a song for every occasion.
"Every protest movement in the world has a performer," Jools says. "You stand up and you sing. A lot of the time at those protests, people will listen to a song before they'll listen to a speech."
They didn't set out to be known as political activists; they were just doing what felt right at the time. And sometimes it was less about making a statement than it was about refusing to keep parts of their lives under wraps. "We never had to fight that fight," Jools says. "What we did is we celebrated who we were, and people couldn't help but come along with us."
From being out and proud lesbians in the 1970s, through to Lynda and her wife Donna being invited to Parliament as guests for the vote on the Marriage Equality Bill in 2013, the twins' own journey has been a microcosm of New Zealand's when it comes to gay rights. It never occurred to the Topps that they wouldn't be upfront, right from when they gave their first newspaper interview back in 1977.
"If you're hiding something, you can't really give all of yourself – in performance or anything," Lynda says.
"So we told them: 'We're lesbians. We're radical lesbians.' That year, not one paper printed the word 'lesbian'; most of the newspapers had a policy not to. But the following year there must have been a change in some of the papers, and they couldn't get enough of us. [Headlines] said, 'Lesbians take over New Plymouth!' 'Man-hating mickey takers!'"
Jools rolls her eyes. "I mean, who the f* came up with that idea?"
Their careers have spanned more than 40 years and show no sign of slowing down any time soon – "the last 10 years we've been busier than we've ever been" – but hand in hand with their success as performers comes the social change they have been a key part of. They are the first to admit it was not a solo effort, that they were parts of big, bold groups of people who were pushing for justice as hard as they were.
But it would also be a mistake to underestimate just how important their impact was. When they look back, are they impressed by the sheer ballsiness they showed?
"The most impressive thing is we won all the fights," says Jools. "We didn't stop until we won. We're now nuclear-free, you can get married if you're gay. And you know what? We had some big shoes to fill. New Zealand women were the first to get the vote. There have been ballsy women right from the word go… so I think we've had this wonderful concept of women who are strong and political and feisty."
And that feistiness isn't going anywhere, even with a big birthday looming in the not-so-distant future.
The twins are turning 60 in May – "We don't feel like we're 60, do we Jools? We feel like we're 16!" "Too right!" – and they say they are feeling pretty good, apart from a few typical complaints.
"I've got a bad knee and a sore hip," says Lynda. "As you get older, in your 30s and 40s, you have one bad knee and one good knee.
When your good knee also becomes your bad knee, you're starting to get into the other side of your lifetime. But we've never felt like we're getting older; in fact we just do more and more."
So they'll start this year with the third season of Topp Country and then there are two even bigger projects on the horizon.
Firstly, there's the small matter of the first-ever Topp Twins movie. It's going to have the characters, the music, and, of course, a political message: this time, it's the environment and our water quality that are firing up the twins.
"We have to get a little bit smarter as to how we look after the land," says Jools. "The problems are not easy. But we're starting to head in the right direction."
"Slowly, one by one, we'll hopefully fix those problems," agrees Lynda. "That's what New Zealand has always done. We've done a lot of changing in this country over the years."
They're both fans of Jacinda Ardern – in a uniquely Topp Twins way, in that they sold her a retro caravan a few years ago – and are excited to see what she does as Prime Minister.
"She's had a mind to do it, and she said, 'All right, I'll give it a crack,'" Jools says.
"That's what Kiwis do – and she's the ultimate Kiwi right now. They were big shoes to fill but she's tried them on, and she hasn't fallen out of them yet, has she?"
And speaking of bold political women, the second plan that may be on the cards for 2018? A career move for Lynda: she's eyeing up a role in politics.
"What do you think?" she asks.
"We'd have to hang out in Wellington for a little bit, but we've been all over New Zealand, we've met so many people."
She's not 100 per cent sure of her next step, other than acknowledging she doesn't want to start her own party. Jools doesn't want to get into politics – her next big challenge is breaking in a new horse – but there's enough to be getting on with for both of them.
"There has to be a Topp Twins movie, eh?" says Jools.
"It's very important we do that for the country. One that tells a really good Kiwi story, but is also beautifully political and changes the world in some way. I know it's a tall order…"
"But we've got a good track record," says Lynda.

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